IDF Soldiers Demoted After Convicted of Gaza War Misconduct

Two combat soldiers found guilty of forcing 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open bags they thought could contain explosive materials.

The Israel Defense Forces court on Sunday demoted two combat soldiers convicted of inappropriate conduct during Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip in 2008.

Nir Kafri

The two Givati Brigade staff sergeants were demoted to the rank of sergeant, as well as receiving suspended sentence terms of three months each.

The soldiers were convicted last month of forcing a 9-year-old Palestinian boy to open a number of bags they thought might contain explosive materials during Operation Cast Lead. The bags turned out to be harmless.

The incident in question occurred in the Tel Al-Hawa neighborhood in south Gaza City in January 2009, toward the end of the war.

While the demotions means that the two could still serve as commanders during their reserves service, the suspended sentence will be included in the soldiers' criminal record.

In its ruling, the military court said that  "operational duty does not grant immunity" for actions, with the presiding judges adding, however, that one could not "ignore the difficult conditions in which fighters sent by the State of Israel had to operate."

The judges stressed that by separating a 9-year-old boy from his mother, and using him for military aims, the defendants acted in contradiction to known orders, and in a way which represented an injury to "the moral stamina of the IDF and of the people [of Israel], which is tested in difficult times."

On the other hand, the judges also indicated a long list of considerations which may have affected the soldiers' actions, such as the fact that they did not seek to harm the boy, that they worked in dangerous conditions and under extreme time constraints, and that both soldiers had a record of excellence and good behavior.

The court also mentioned the possible damage a severe sentence could do to the future of the two Givati fighters, who completed their army duty 18 months ago.

Ilan Katz, the soldiers' attorney, expressed satisfaction at the relatively conservative sentence, saying that the "military court has spoken and the only conclusion one can reach in its wake is that we could have reached a settlement that excluded criminal charges without having to put the [soldiers] through this ordeal."

"They remain IDF commanders, and we need people like that in the IDF," Katz added.

Following the sentencing, a fellow Givati soldier told Army Radio that everyone involved was left with "a sense of satisfaction and joy over the sentence."

"I don't know how many people have been in combat situations, but if it wont end well if we are made to think about every thing we do," the IDF soldier said, adding that "no one thinks that 'neighbor procedure' is positive."

"But does that mean that decision soldiers have to make during an operation should enter a courtroom? Will we find ourselves in court every time we are forced to confront a civilian population?" the soldier asked, adding that he felt that such a situation would 'hurt us as an army.'

Last month's conviction triggered a wave of protests, as even the trial's opening session was accompanied by a demonstration by more than 200 Israelis, including reservists, outside the court.

The supporters' main argument was that the soldiers paid the price of international pressure on Israel. Some even claimed the army sacrificed the grunts in order to protect their superiors from prosecution.